Friday, July 8, 2011


For the past three weeks I've been at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, studying in the Advanced Degrees Program there. I've found this time remarkably refreshing as the lens through which I view my work as a priest has been shifting. One's understanding of one's priesthood is always in flux, hopefully growing and deepening.

In some ways, this time at Sewanee has become a time of conversion for me. St. Benedict's second rule is conversatio morum, which is usually translated as conversion of life or conversion of manners. It refers to the constant conversion that must happen if one is to live faithfully as a disciple. I've heard a call to live that conversatio. In particular, I've heard a call to return to the image of listening for God with people.

"Where is God in that?" I find myself continually asking.

I have finished my first year at St. John's, my first year as a solo priest, my first year as a rector, my first year back in my home-town. As I reflect upon the joys and challenges of that year, I hear that same question coming back over and over again, "And where do you think God is in that?"

About halfway through my time at Sewanee, our noon Eucharist had finished and I wandered over to the small side chapel. Though I'd been in it before, I was surprised by how much smaller it seemed than when I was a student. There are only a handful of chairs lined up in single file along the walls on either side. At the back is a stand of votive candles. At the front is a small altar with a statue of Mary upon it. It's sort of the standard statue, Mary looking very Caucasian, very European, in pristine white and blue robes, standing upon a sphere with one of her feet standing on the back of a snake. Her hands are outstretched to those in the chapel.

It's sort of the statue of Mary you'd come to expect.

I took a seat, then knelt down, and began praying.

I've been surprised over this past year by the constant feeling that I'm always carrying so many things. No matter where I go, no matter the time of the day, there's always this sense of situations and people and struggles close at hand. I think I have pretty decent boundaries, keeping sacred space with my wife and home and not bringing work home as often as I could. But, still, I don't know if it's really possible to set down that bag of parish concerns. Indeed, some of those concerns are matters that I simply cannot set down.

I wonder sometimes if people know how much I agonize, truly agonize, over the decisions I make and the conversations I have. I take seriously St. Benedict's injunction that the leader of the community avoid "neglecting or treating lightly the welfare of those entrusted to him." Every single person matters deeply to me and there is rarely a way forward in any situation that won't leave a person or group feeling pushed to the side.

So I pray and talk and seek guidance. But in the end, no matter the decision, I still carry those parish concerns around, my mind always turning them over again and again, asking if there is a more faithful way.

The bag can get heavy.

I looked up from my prayer and saw the statue of Mary, arms outstretched, inviting. I swallowed, stood up, and walked toward the altar. Mary seemed to look down with eyes of deep sadness, her arms inviting... something. I believe mothers understand compassion in a very particular way. They know what it means to suffer with. I looked at the compassion in her eyes and felt the emotion well up within me.

It seemed as though her outstretched hands were inviting me. At the time I couldn't figure out what she was inviting me to do... but now, a week and some change later, I think I know. The tradition of the church teaches us that Mary is constantly directing us to her son. Looking back, I can see that her hands were outstretched towards me and towards the altar below. That heavy bag I've been carrying is not mine to carry. It's not mine to carry alone.

And so as I celebrated Eucharist on Wednesday, the comfortable words following the absolution brought profound clarity to my sense of ministry, "Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you."

How long has Jesus been saying that to me?

How carefully have I been listening?

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